Feb. 15, 2004 – In his worst nightmares more than three decades ago, the engineer who supervised the design and construction of the wastewater collection systems on St. Croix and St. Thomas envisioned the circumstances that have led to the recurring sewage problems on St. Croix.
Today, he is fearful of a situation on St. Thomas leading to results that could make what's been happening on St. Croix smell like a rose.
Public complaints and concerns on St. Croix have focused on untreated sewage flowing out of manholes into the streets of Christiansted and Frederiksted. But Pedrito Francois says he planned the system so that's exactly what would happen — so that breakdowns would be evident.
"I had the systems designed without bypasses because I knew that repairs would not be made unless the results of discharges and breakdowns were in the public eye," he said recently.
While St. Croix is now paying the price for years of poor maintenance, Francois said, "Maintenance and operation of the Charlotte Amalie collection system has been very good thus far. The only major problem was the collapse of the interceptor by the Federal District Court Building, caused by using lower-quality pipe in rerouting the interceptor during construction of the complex."
However, Francois said, "the system was built in 1972. For 32 years, the high hydrogen sulfide in our sewage has been slowly eating away the concrete of which the sewer manholes are built. This is particularly evident at the collecting manhole which sends the sewage to the wet well of the Cancryn pump station.
"This manhole, which is 15 to 20 feet deep, collects all of the sewage from Sub Base, Contant, Altona, Charlotte Amalie and Frenchtown. The concrete has been eaten away to the point where the rebars are now exposed."
The implications of the situation, Francois says, are these: "If this manhole collapses, access to the pump station will be blocked. Sewage will first begin to flow from the manhole by the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel, then from Creque's Alley, the entrance to Frenchtown, Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, John Thomas Funeral Home and Crown Bay Marina."
He says Public Works personnel "have been advised several times" of the situation and adds: "I hope they do something soon."
Leo Francis, who was Public Works commissioner during the Farrelly administration in 1987-95 and is now in private practice, calls Francois "the guru of all the sewage systems" and agrees with his assessments.
"When we seek information that we can't find documented," Francis said earlier this month, "we talk to him. We spoke to him just two weeks ago."
Francis is a vice president of HTA Caribbean, a civil engineering company based on St. Thomas. He said the firm is involved in "wastewater system design, highway design, structural design, airport system design — but wastewater is one of our strengths."
HTA, he said, has "been helping Public Works. We helped them to renovate the Charlotte Amalie wastewater treatment plant by the airport. We helped them select a contractor to build and operate new plants on St. Thomas and St. Croix … We offer a lot of suggestions. We live here too."
Francis says HTA, too, has told Public Works about the potential disaster involving the Cancryn "main manhole that receives all the sewage from the whole city" of Charlotte Amalie. "We've told them it needs to be addressed."
"I'm not going to second guess anybody," he said, but on an emergency basis, "they need to put in some kind of bypass system, because you're going to have to do that anyway so it can be functional while you're repairing it. Also, it can be used in case there is a failure."
Francis said the critical sectors on both islands are the town areas. On St. Croix, failures have occurred at the LBJ and Fig Tree pump stations in Christiansted as well as the Lagoon Street station in Frederiksted.
The St. Thomas "country" area is being served by the state-of-the-art Mangrove Lagoon/Turpentine Run facility which opened last August, and major structural repair work was undertaken last year at the Vessup treatment plant. St. John "is in good shape," Francis said.
District Court keeping tabs on progress
On Jan. 22, District Judge Thomas K. Moore convened a status hearing on his most recent orders to repair the sewerage system. The V.I. government since 1985 has been operating the system under a consent decree intended to bring it into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. A number of orders — setting deadlines and imposing sanctions for failure to meet them — have come from Moore's court.
In October of 2001, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull appeared before Moore at a contempt-of-court hearing — to take responsibility for delays in repairing St. Croix's sewage system and to submit his pledge "to do some micromanaging." (See "Turnbull vows to 'micromanage' sewage system".)
Last March, Moore, at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, shot down a move by the Turnbull administration to award a $3.6 million contract for St. Croix sewer repairs without bidding to Global Resources Management, a firm with no experience whose former chief executive was Ohanio Harris, then Turnbull's special assistant on St. Croix.
In his lengthy ruling, Moore ordered the administration to hire a "qualified independent private contractor" within 90 days to operate and maintain the island's pump stations and sewage collection system for the next 18 months. (See "Judge finds 'reek of politics' in sewage contract".)
In December and January, repeated Lagoon Street pump station breakdowns on St. Croix sent untreated sewage flowing into the waters of public beaches and into guts and streets. On Jan. 28, Public Works announced that emergency repairs had been completed; the next day another major malfunction occurred and thousands of gallons of raw sewage spewed into the Lagoon Street gut, which overflowed into an adjacent parking lot.
The Senate Government Operations Committee had been scheduled that very day on St. Croix to take testimony from Public Works officials on waste disposal. But Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the committee chair, rescheduled it for Feb. 19 "because Commissioner Wayne Callwood asked for more time to prepare for the meeting."
Ordering, installing equipment takes months
Sonia Nelthropp, Public Works senior solid waste and wastewater manager and federal compliance officer, said following the Jan. 22 hearing before Moore that government officials explained why "there were delays in [meeting] some of the deadlines."
The contractor, General Engineering Corp., or GEC, "was able to explain to the court what is involved with ordering the pumps and how long it takes to get them," Nelthropp said. "It takes close to nine months to manufacture them. They have to be engineered. And once you have them in place, you don't just put them on; you need to have monitoring protocols."
She also said Public Works had learned that the plug valves installed in the pumps "which were considered what should be used back in the '90s," are now recognized to be the wrong kind. "We should have been using a gate valve," she said. "That was the practice at the time. It is not the practice now, because there is a problem with them [the plug valves], which is what we were having."
Francois said each of the main pump stations was built with three pumps: "Each of the first two pumps could handle the daily maximum normal flow of sewage" back in the '70s. "Two pumps would be required during p
rolonged heavy rains. The third pump was twice the size of each of the other two pumps, to be kept as an emergency standby."
Today, he said, "when a part is required, or a pump must be replaced, you must first call the company. They will then schedule manufacture of the part or pump based on previous orders. If your credit is not good, they will demand payment up front." And, he said, "scheduling, manufacturing and shipping can easily take two to three months, so it is not surprising that sewage has been running in Frederiksted for so long."
Nelthropp said that pumps were ordered for all three stations, and the valves are being changed. Two pumps each had been installed at LBJ and Fig Tree as of the start of February. Lagoon Street was expected to be functioning with the existing "house pumps" last week while awaiting delivery of the new pumps, and the new Fig Tree pumps are targeted to be operational Feb. 25, she said.
She said there was blockage in the line leading from LBJ and that has been addressed. "Once we get the pumps online now, we'll start finding where some of the breaks are," she said.
Since last fall, Public Works and GEC have been utilizing television technology to trouble shoot the pipeline system. (See "TV technology being used to assess sewer lines".) "We're about 80 percent complete on shooting the system upstream and downstream from each manhole," she said. "We've done about a thousand manholes; there are 2,500 altogether."
The TV technology feeds into a computer system that generates reports "that give us the categories of repair that are needed," Nelthropp said. "Now we can start putting together our scopes for the repair of these lines." She said Public Works will hold a seminar in March for contractors "so they can know what the scope of work is that's needed."
Funding is in place, at least to start
The Public Finance Authority has earmarked $5 million for the repair and replacement of sewer lines, Nelthropp said — $2.5 million for St. Croix, $2 million for St. Thomas and $200,000 for St. John.
Francis says sources of funding for system repairs were "few and far between" when he was Public Works commissioner, "but from what I'm hearing now, a lot of the funding is in place," including EPA grants and allocations "as directed by Judge Moore."
According to Francis, who attended the Jan. 22 hearing, "the judge indicated — and it seemed like everyone agreed, because no one answered — that money was not the problem. When I was in charge, money was the problem."
He said a major Public Works issue as he sees it in dealing with the deteriorated system is that "they are addressing it piecemeal. They've got to look at it more globally, holistically, and come up with a systemic plan of action."
Nelthropp says pretty much the same thing: "If you don't do the planning, you end up with what you had before — ready, aim, fire. The whole system is deteriorated. The Lagoon pump station is an example. We changed out the valve, and the fitting down the line failed. This is what will continue to happen, but we will soon have continuity in the system. We can have a line that is broken, but it's not in non-compliance, because the wastewater is still flowing through."
In downtown St. Thomas, Nelthropp said, a continual problem is pipeline blockage. "Our sewer truck goes out on six, seven, 10 calls a day to clear lines," she said. Recently, "solid blocks of grease, rock-hard grease, blocked up the Long Bay pump station, and a crew spent all weekend removing it. People are just pouring the grease down there from various restaurants."
Also, she said, there is "a major issue in the Tutu area with the Orangeburg pipe breaking, collapsing. Lines were laid out along the property lines in Tutu; we're supposed to have 10-foot access, but over the years some people have put up walls over these lines or very close to them. So when a line collapses, sometimes we have to break through a stone wall, then put the wall back."
Francis says with the passage of time, "personnel are not there, knowledge of the system is not there. People have left. Hurricanes have blown away a lot of the records — and keeping records is not the forte of the government."
During his tenure, he said, "we were trying to interview a lot of those people and document that stuff. I had young people working with them; we had developed a whole division called environmental engineering addressing wastewater and solid-waste issues. Now, it seems like they've disbanded the unit. There's no engineering going on."
Francis said his impression is that Moore is "going to mandate a body of services that have expertise in sanitary engineering."
"In order to correct the problems, you have to know what the problems are," Francis said. And then, "somebody has to put a plan together — prioritize how to maximize money and service to the public. It could be five, six, 10 years."
Nelthropp is looking at 10 to 15 years and says the cost will be $100 million, and "each year we'll be looking for money, justifying it."
The Government Operations Committee is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Thursday on St. Croix. Only part of the day's agenda is devoted to taking testimony on the status of Public Works wastewater, solid waste and road repairs.
Judi Shimel also contributed to this report.
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